How can we earn a spot toward the beginning of the line past the Kisei Rachamim on the Day of Judgment?
One of my still-strong memories of my years in the Yeshiva of Staten Island is of the atmosphere of intense spiritual focus that pervaded the yeshivah during Elul. Some years ago, while writing a biographical sketch of Rav Dovid Kronglas, the unforgettable mashgiach ruchani of Baltimore’s Ner Israel, I came to understand the roots of that Elul ruach.
Rav Chaim Mintz, menahel ruchani in Staten Island who was close to Reb Dovid, told me that “one who didn’t see Rav Dovid’s Elul, never saw an Elul. You could see the awe of the approaching Yamim Noraim on his face, which only increased as those days drew closer. On Rosh Hashanah itself, you didn’t talk to him, you didn’t think to approach him, such was the aura of eimas hadin around him. And he imparted this spirit into the whole yeshivah.”
Understandably, then, when a group of ten boys, including Reb Chaim, went to Toronto to help establish a branch of Ner Israel there and then returned to Baltimore for Yom Kippur, they hesitated to approach Rav Dovid. It was the Aseres Yemei Teshuvah, when his intensity reached its apex. “But when he saw us,” Reb Chaim recalled, “he smiled broadly and gave us the warmest shalom aleichem, and inquired into how we were all doing. In his eyes, we had gone to be marbitz Torah and deserved no less, even if it was in the very midst of the Yemei Hadin. As Rav Yisrael Salanter used to say, ‘the other person doesn’t have to suffer because I’m working on my fear of Hashem’s judgment.’”
Perhaps there is a way to extend that to apply not just between one individual and another, but within each person, too. That is to say, can each of us somehow find a balance between cultivating a sense of awe appropriate to the magnitude of the period, while not having a healthy awe turn into immobilizing dread?
It would seem that Reb Yisrael’s own leading talmid, Rav Itzele Peterburger, lights a path for us in an essay in his sefer Kochvei Ohr. He addresses a mishnah in Rosh Hashanah that discusses how all human beings pass before Hashem on Rosh Hashanah like “bnei maron” — an ambiguous term the Gemara says refers to a procession of people walking single file.
Reb Itzele explains that even though the omniscient Creator could judge all of his creations in one instant, He chooses instead to adopt all the trappings of an earthly judicial system. He ascends to His seat of judgment on one particular day, with each person passing before Him individually to have his record of conduct scrutinized and his fate pondered. There’s a Book of Recollections, along with Heavenly accusers and defenders, and Hashem Himself serving simultaneously as witness and ultimate Judge.
Now, in a system in which we all pass, one at a time, before the Throne of Judgment, there’s a great advantage to be closer to the head of the line than to its end. Once Hashem has taken stock of all of our actions, the cumulative effect of all the sins we’ve committed might give rise to great Divine anger over the mess we’ve made of His beautiful world. The earlier our turn to be judged comes, the less people have stood in judgment before us and thus, the less of a build-up of Divine displeasure there has been for us to have to contend with.
The crucial question then becomes: How can we earn a spot toward the beginning of the line that will make its way past the Kisei Rachamim on the Day of Judgment? And, as it turns out, the answer is one we’re well familiar with from, l’havdil, the many mundane lines we’ve stood on in the hopes of being among the first to get into stores and other venues: by getting there early.
And that, says Reb Itzele, is part of what Elul is all about.
Tzaddikim have no problem going to the head of the line because their many good deeds help to muscle them into those coveted berths at the front. But as for the many of us whose spiritual track record is far poorer, we need Hashem to exercise His compassion, to focus on some merit we have and use it to exonerate us in judgment.
Except that since it’s hard to know what that merit will be, the surest way to elicit Hashem’s compassion is to show Hashem how deeply we care that we’re about to undergo this awesome judgment, and how our deep concern over it has led us to begin preparing for it.
What emerges, the Kochvei Ohr explains, is that our efforts in Elul to improve — including spending more quality time learning and davening and using mussar to stoke the once-glowing but now dormant embers of yiras Shamayim within us — are not just for the purpose of trying to enter the Yamim Noraim with more credit points.
Because even if our sustained efforts over the course of this precious month to turn ourselves into tzaddikim fall short, and we remain among those with a mitzvah deficit in our spiritual ledgers as Rosh Hashanah commences, we need not feel an underlying dread of what awaits us. The very fact that we got serious about the Yemei Hadin early on still makes us deserving of Hashem’s rachamim.
As the first of Elul’s shofar blasts pierce the air, we can seize the initiative to do something, almost anything, to demonstrate that we are not sanguine in the face of the approaching period of judgment, thereby bringing forth Hashem’s infinite mercy upon us. Getting in line early — by taking even tentative, small steps toward self-betterment — ensures that we’ll be standing toward the front of that single file queue when it wends its way past the bar of Divine justice in just over a month from now.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 926. Eytan Kobre may be contacted directly at email@example.com)
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